Government blasted for refusing to resentence inmates trapped in jail with no hope of release

The government has been blasted for refusing to resentence almost 3,000 inmates trapped in prison under indefinite jail terms despite a promise to overhaul draconian licence conditions imposed on such prisoners.

The justice secretary has rejected calls from MPs and campaigners to help prisoners serving imprisonment for public protections (IPP) sentences who have no clear hope of release, including 700 who have served more than 10 years longer than their minimum tariff.

But Alex Chalk has pledged to reform the lengthy 10-year licence conditions associated with the sentence – a move which has been welcomed as the “first step” on the road to right the wrongs of controversial jail terms.

The Ministry of Justice claims the changes will release 1,800 from their IPP sentences by March 2025. But families whose loved ones have never been released – including Cherrie Nichol whose brother Aaron Graham has served 20 years for punching a man in a fight – said the announcement has done “nothing” to help those languishing inside amid soaring suicide rates for IPP prisoners.

Sir Bob Neill, chair of the justice committee, told The Independent the licence overhaul will benefit a “significant number” with the “sword of Damocles” hanging over their head while on licence.

But he said he would have liked the government to go further. He is pressing ahead with his own amendment to the bill calling for a full resentencing exercise, adding: “It’s unfinished business on resentencing.”

The announcement comes after The Independent revealed seven inmates have taken their own lives since the government first refused to resentence IPP prisoners in February.

The cross-party justice committee had urged the government to resentence prisoners serving the “hopeless” prison term – in which offenders are given a minimum jail term but no maximum – which was abolished in 2012 following human rights concerns.

Under the tough sentences, offenders must serve another 10 years under licence conditions in the community after they are released.

Lord Blunkett has called for justice secretary Alex Chalk to ‘give hope’ to IPP prisoners (Getty/iStock/PA)
Lord Blunkett has called for justice secretary Alex Chalk to ‘give hope’ to IPP prisoners (Getty/iStock/PA)

Under new amendments to the Victims and Prisoners Bill, announced by the Ministry of Justice on Tuesday, they would be referred to the Parole Board for licence review after just three years. Even if the board decides not to terminate the licence, it will automatically expire after a further two years, as long as the offender is not recalled to prison.

Ms Nichol told The Independent she is considering High Court action to help free her brother, who has served two decades including time on remand, despite receiving a minimum tariff of two years and 124 days in 2005 for punching a man in a fight.

She said she is very happy for families helped by the licence changes, but said her brother fears he will die in jail. Discussing court action, she said: “If my brother doesn’t get out after 20 years, rather than lose my brother that’s what we’ll do.”

She also blasted Mr Chalk for failing to resentence, despite writing that society “shouldn’t have blood on its hands” over IPP sentences in an article on his website in 2017, which he described as one of the “greatest stains” on our justice system.

“In 2017 he said it was the biggest injustice and it needs to go and he’s done nothing. Nobody wants to grasp the issue – it’s like it’s some hot potato that’s still going round and around, but it’s abolished so they should grasp it,” she added.

Justice committee chair Bob Neill has said there is ‘unfinished business’ on resentencing (AFP/Getty)
Justice committee chair Bob Neill has said there is ‘unfinished business’ on resentencing (AFP/Getty)

Alana Bell, whose brother Wayne Bell has served more than 16 years for stealing a bike in 2007, said the announcement was “not good enough” and called for Mr Chalk to reconsider resentencing.

Lord Blunkett, who admits he regrets introducing the sentences in 2005 as Labour home secretary, welcomed the announcement as the “first step on the road” to righting IPP wrongs, but reiterated the government should “pursue every single other option” to help those trapped under the sentence.

He told The Independent: “It is a very good first step to trying to resolve the outstanding problems for IPP prisoners. In particular, those who find themselves on licence but with the continuing threat of recall on minor breaches. I hope it will be a precursor to further action in due course.”

He said it was clear the government had “made up its mind” on resentencing this side of the general election, but added: “Short of resentencing the only thing that can be done is to massively improve the support to prisoners in terms of demonstrating they’re safe to release.”

He hopes this will include work to help IPP inmates show the parole board they are safe to release and increased use of the open prison estate, which was largely blocked under the previous justice secretary Dominic Raab.

IPP campaign group UNGRIPP said the licence changes will help to end the “purgatory” of licence conditions, but added they were “gravely disappointed” the government had not gone as far as resentencing.

“Today is only one step along the road to truly restoring justice and we hope that the justice secretary will consider going a step further to finally put an end to this injustice,” a spokesperson added.

Pia Sinha, chief executive of the Prison Reform Trust, said the move would “create an important off ramp” for thousands serving IPP sentences in the community, but added it would “do little” for almost 3,000 still in prison.

She added: “It is disappointing that the government has not chosen to adopt sensible proposals from the cross-party justice committee for the resentencing of people on IPPs. It is an omission we will seek to persuade parliamentarians to address in the remaining stages of the victim and prisoners bill.”

Mr Chalk said: “We are taking decisive action to curtail IPP licence periods to give rehabilitated people the opportunity to move on with their lives, while continuing to make sure the public are protected from the most serious offenders.

“This is a major step towards wiping away the stain of IPP sentences from our justice system, without compromising public protection.”